A Cowboy in the Kitchen: Recipes from Reata and Texas West of the Pecos Review
By Grady Spears
Take Me to Reata
Wide open spaces. Cattle on the range. The rugged beauty of the Big Bend and West Texas mountains. From the very first chapter, aptly titled "Scorching a Steak," Grady Spears' cookbook A Cowboy In The Kitchen is not only packed with terrific recipes, but it also inspires these romantic images of West Texas.
Spears will be the first to tell you that he is not really a chef in the trained sense. Simply put, he needed a job while living in West Texas. He started working at Gage Hotel restaurant in the small town of Marathon, near Big Bend National Park. He quickly became involved with the menu, and his obvious culinary skills transformed the local eatery into a well-known restaurant.
Today, his Reata Restaurants should not be missed when visiting Fort Worth, Alpine or his West Coast branch in Beverly Hills. He has also written the other must-read books Cowboy Cocktails, a great bar guide, and The Great Steak Book.
A Cowboy in the Kitchen is a testament to the kinds of foods people expect both traditional and modern cowboys to eat and enjoy. Spears' great successes are often tried and true dishes made with a few transforming twists that result in something people remember and talk about. Throughout A Cowboy in the Kitchen, Spears presents recipes in this manner. A dish may have begun life as simple stew or steak, but with some innovations it becomes a show stopper.
Take, for example, Char-Grilled Texas T-Bone with Caciotta Cheese Enchiladas. Now who would have thought serving steak and enchiladas together on a plate? Steak and enchiladas?
"I once cooked meals on a luxury train trip that went from Fort Worth to Chihuaha City, Mexico," Spears explains. "After the train trip, I'd stop into a little coffee shop down there that had a T-bone steak on the menu, The steak wasn't bad, but it was grilled without any seasonings so I'd order their cheese enchiladas on the side. I like the combination so much I started serving this dish at the Reata."
From A Cowboy In The Kitchen:
A big, thick, char-grilled t-bone, a pile of hot mashed potatoes, and an ice-cold Lone Star beer -- that's my idea of West Texas cowboy cuisine. Lots of highly trained chefs wouldn't be caught dead serving this kind of simple, old-fashioned American food in their restaurants, but I get away with it because I'm not really a chef. I'm just a cowboy in the kitchen.
One of the editors of Martha Stewart's magazine came out to visit us one time. She was shocked by all the red meat, butter, and cream in my recipes and by the way we heap things on a plate. I guess it's been quite a while since anybody ate that way in New York. "Your menu is such a throw back it seems new," she told me.
She was right; my cooking really is a throwback. Steak and potatoes, buttermilk biscuits, bacon-wrapped shrimp -- these were all standards on Texas tables in the 1950s. I wasn't trying to make a statement or start a back-to-the-past movement in cooking when I started serving this stuff. I like this food and frankly, at the time, I didn't know how to cook anything else. The miracle is that everybody else seems to love these foods too -- even the Martha Stewart editor cleaned her plate. Maybe it's nostalgia that makes this food taste so good. Or maybe we've just been trying too hard for the last fifty years.
The book's second chapter contains recipes influenced by Mexico. Chicken Burritos with Mushrooms and Sundried Tomato/Goat Cheese Pesto was invented by his wife, Sara. He includes a recipe called Crispy Cabrito Ribs, which are braised for three hours and then cooled. (The cooling process is key to really crispy ribs.)
Spears explains that the idea of cowboys eating game birds and seafood is not strange. "Hunting and fishing have always been part of the culture. It's a tradition from the days of the vaqueros. Fish and game birds were especially popular with bacon, biscuits, and coffee in the morning, since breakfast was usually the most boring meal of the day."
His collection includes beer-battered quail with "Cider Adobo," a vinegary Mexican marinade, as well as Cornmeal-Crusted Oysters with Horseradish Sour Cream, and Catfish Cakes.
A particular favorite chapter of mine is devoted to dutch oven cooking, or "one-pot meals." Spears explains that dutch oven cooking for large groups is trickier than it looks. Only after watching his friends cook beans, fry potatoes and simmer stew in the Dutch ovens, did he learn the cooking techniques and recipes. Once while joining friends in eating a very tasty stew, he gobbled up every bite. Asking them what the stew was, they answered the stew he was eating was called "Son Of A Bitch." This is one of those dish names that has its origins in its ingredients, in this case certain of the calf's innards. It's a funny story and a good way to introduce this section on many delicious stews. The recipes include a special Chicken Gumbo, a flavorful Jalapeño Beef Stew and how to make a big, tasty pot of Ranch Beans.
Many of the breads listed are made with sourdough. Starting with a fine recipe on how to make sourdough from scratch, there are recipes for biscuits, flatbread and pancakes. There is a great bread pudding side dish chorizo and Garlic Bread Pudding.
This sounds spicier than it really is; once the jalapeños are cooked, they mellow out and give this stew a nice pepper flavor, without a lot of burn.
- 6 Shallots, peeled
- 1 tablespoon Olive oil
- 5 tablespoons Butter, unsalted
- 1 lb. Beef chuck, cut into 1-inch squares
- 1/3 cups Flour
- 4 Jalapeño peppers, stemmed and seeded
- 2 Carrots, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
- 1 Large potato, peeled and cut into 2-inch pieces
- ½ Red onion, peeled and diced
- 1 cup Port
- 2 cup Beef stock (fresh or canned)
- 1 tablespoon Dried sage leaves
- 1 tablespoon Dried oregano leaves
- Kosher salt to taste
- Freshly ground pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 350°. Toss the shallots with the olive oil, place them in a small pan, and roast them in the oven for 35 minutes, or until they are soft and brown.
Heat the butter in a large, deep saucepan (that has a cover) over medium heat. While the butter is melting, toss the beef cubes with the flour to coat. Place the beef in the hot butter, increase the heat and sauté the beef cubes on all sides for 5 minutes for rare and longer for medium and well done.
Do not crowd the meat or it will steam rather than brown. Remove the pan from the heat, transfer the meat to a bowl, cover it loosely with foil to keep it warm, and set it aside.
Mince the jalapeños. The peppers vary in heat, so the amount of peppers may be adjusted accordingly. Place the pan back over medium heat, and, in the remaining butter, sauté the peppers, carrots, potato and onion, tossing to prevent burning until onions turn translucent.
Add the wine, stock, sage, and oregano, gently stirring on the bottom of the pan to release any solidified pan juices. Cook the stew over low heat, with the lid slightly ajar, for 40 minutes. Add the reserved shallots and beef, stir to combine, and continue cooking for another 20 minutes.
Test to see if the meat and vegetables are done. Season with salt and pepper.
The chapters "Potatoes, Vegetables, and Other Touchy Subjects" and "Ranch House Soups and Salads" are full of good recipes. Spears tells us that he loves serving potatoes with just about everything. His recipes for Dutch Oven Potatoes with Dried Fruit is a sweet version of the standard potato casserole. There are also Garlic Mashed Potatoes, Corn Pudding Pie and the Texas-German Cabbage Braised with Texas Port.
Spears also includes an informative section on the distinctively famous 1015 onions from Texas, and how to make Buttermilk-Battered 1015 Onion Rings. His chapter on salads includes great innovations on the old standards: Jicama and Carrot Coleslaw, Smoked Tomato Guacamole, Warm Potato Salad with Bacon Vinaigrette, and Cream of Jalapeño Soup, a unique pepper bisque.
Other chapters in the book cover great desserts like a special buttermilk pie with rum-raisins. There is a chapter on relishes and pickles. Plus, he closes the book with good chef advice on making special sauces and butters.
Like all Ten-Speed Press books, the accompanying photographs are stylish and colorful. The book contains great location photography as well, showing the beautiful landscape of West Texas, the inspiration for the book's cuisine. Its sturdy hardcover design and well-designed layout makes the book's contents even more appetizing.
Everything in the book gives the cook insight on good, Texas-style cooking, sharpened with ingenious combinations of new ingredients and flavors. A Cowboy in the Kitchen is a truly top-notch cookbook, full of great recipes to make your meals proud examples of Texas cooking.
Also by Grady Spears, and reviewed for TexasCooking.com: Cowboy Cocktails: Boot Scootin' Beverages and Tasty Vittles from the Wild West